The head of a presidential delegation investigating the deaths of 10 people in a village in eastern Afghanistan said Wednesday the team has concluded that civilians - including schoolchildren - were killed in an attack by foreign troops last weekend, denying NATO reports that insurgents were the victims.
Asadullah Wafa, a senior adviser to President Hamid Karzai, told The Associated Press by telephone that among the victims discovered in a village house in the Narang district of Kunar province were eight schoolchildren between the ages of 12 and 14. A NATO official said initial reports from troops involved in the fighting on Sunday indicated that the victims were insurgents - all young males.
Civilian deaths are one of the most sensitive issues for foreign troops in Afghanistan, especially now when some additional 37,000 US and NATO troops are being deployed to the war-ravaged country. Several hundred Afghans in neighboring Nangarhar province demonstrated on Wednesday to protest the deaths.
Although far more civilians are killed by the Taliban, those blamed on international forces spark the widespread resentment and undermine the fight against the militants.
"I have talked to the principal of the school in the village and he gave us details about the killed children," Wafa said. "The schoolchildren cannot be al-Qaida. I confirm they are innocent people killed by mistake. I talked to Karzai about the findings."
Wafa said the villagers demanded from the 10-member delegation of government officials and lawmakers that informants "who gave the wrong target to the Americans must be found and punished by a court."
Col. Wayne Shanks, spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said at a news conference Wednesday that that allegations were being investigated together with Afghan authorities.
He said the force takes all such allegations seriously and goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.
"In fact, you can see that our enemy, the insurgents, have very little regard for the Afghan people," he said. "We have noticed a very dramatic increase in civilian casualties caused by roadside bombs by attacks that insurgents have on the Afghan people."
The latest figures released by the United Nations show that 2,021 civilian died during clashes in the first 10 months of this year, up from 1,838 for the same period last year. Taliban insurgents were blamed for 68 percent of the deaths this year - three times more than NATO forces, according to the UN.